Fintan O’Toole: Marriage was nothing to be proud of in 1983

Legal changes over the years profoundly altered the state of marriage for the better

When I wed in 1983, I was thrilled to be with my wife but not really proud to be married. There were too many shameful things about Irish marriage.

As a man, I was, I hope, an equal partner to my wife. But as a husband, I was a sanctioned tyrant. For the first seven years of my marriage I had a legal right to rape my wife – marital rape was not outlawed in Ireland until 1990. For the first three years of my marriage, if I decided to leave my wife and move to England, she, though living in Ireland, was deemed to be legally domiciled in England. She had no say in the matter – as her husband’s dependant, her legal status was a mere adjunct of mine. In the year I got married, 1983, there was an ongoing campaign to change the law to give each spouse an equal right to the family home and its contents. Alan Dukes, who was then minister for justice, promised such legislation in April 1983 but nothing happened until 1989. Until three years before I got married, my wife’s income from her job would have been automatically treated under Irish tax law as my “extra” income. And of course, for the first 12 years of my marriage, that marriage was indissoluble. Whatever happened to our relationship, even if we were legally separated and lived apart for decades, neither of us could ever marry again.

Hallowed traditions

All of these things changed, and those changes profoundly altered the nature of the institution my wife and I had joined in 1983. It is worth remembering that the things that were changed were ancient, hallowed traditions, sanctioned by time and religion and social practice. My right to rape my wife was part of common law – it had long seemed perfectly obvious and “natural” that the question of consent to sex simply didn’t arise in a marriage. (In many parts of the world, indeed, this still seems “natural”.) The idea that a wife was not a legally or economically separate person but a mere adjunct to her husband had very deep roots. Within my lifetime, even minimal changes to this idea were bitterly opposed.

In 1965, for example, when Charles Haughey and Brian Lenihan introduced the Succession Act to give a widow the right to inherit at least a third of her husband’s property, Fine Gael (including its liberal wing under Declan Costello) fought and voted against it. The Incorporated Law Society was strongly against the change. In 1986, Haughey, who was no stranger to political fights, said this was the toughest battle he’d ever been in.


The thing about all of these changes is that they had a vastly bigger impact on mainstream marriage than anything that might conceivably happen as a result of Friday’s referendum on marriage equality. The nature of the marriage I entered into in 1983 was altered radically and retrospectively over the next 12 years. And altered, moreover, in a way that really did upend thousands of years of legal and religious traditions and that went against what many people still thought of as the natural order of things. In terms both of its legal definition and of its social meaning, the marriage I entered into in 1983 is scarcely recognisable from the one I’m (happily) still in now. By contrast, extending the right to marry to same-sex couples doesn’t change my marriage at all in legal or constitutional terms. It just makes me happier to be married because it makes marriage a lovelier thing.

In my adult lifetime, contrary to the No campaign’s image of an unchanging institution, Irish marriage has undergone revolutionary change. Almost all of those changes were opposed by conservatives as threats to marriage. The biggest change of all, divorce, was, we were told, an apocalyptic event. After the very narrow acceptance of divorce in the 1995 referendum, the Vatican described the outcome as having fatally undermined the family, which had lost “one of its foundation stones, namely the unity and indissolubility of marriage”. This in turn threatened “the stability, the wellbeing and harmony of society”. Conservative lawyers argued, in the same terms we’ve heard in recent weeks, that divorce would completely destroy the existing constitutional protection for the family. Funny that the same people now argue that the constitutional protection for the family remains intact after all – but that of course it will now be destroyed if marriage is extended to same-sex couples.

Change has not destroyed marriage

Irish marriage has already changed in far more fundamental ways than is now being proposed. And those changes haven’t destroyed it. They’ve purified it by rooting it, not in systematic discrimination against women, but in the love between equal people. They have transformed marriage from an instrument of domination, oppression and inequality to a free partnership of people who want to share their lives and to live in a republic that recognises the dignity of their choice. We have almost completed that wonderful, joyous transformation. There is just one more step to be taken, before we can all celebrate marriage for the civilised, life-affirming institution it can and will be.